Just ask anyone who owns an E46 M3—the car is such a joy to drive that it often times inspires its owners to hone their driving dexterity by pushing their limits at the track.
When Renée Lee bought her 2001 BMW E46 M3, she fell in love with it right away because of its handling and smoothness. Fans of the brand will tell you that BMW engineers vehicles that are a pleasure to drive. They are known for performing well, even when bone stock. Renée's plan was to leave it mostly unmodified. She says, "my original plan was to just daily drive the E46 and enjoy the car for what it is, even completely stock. Simplicity is key with me, so all I really wanted was to lower the car, buy some nice looking wheels for it, and get an exhaust. That's it. But the thing is, the M3 is such a versatile vehicle. You can daily drive it on the street, and it really shines when you're cornering at high-speed on a road course."
Renée didn't start her love of cars with this M3, though. "I used to own a 1994 Honda Accord with an H22A engine swap from a Prelude VTEC. I parted ways with this car some time in 2006 or 2007 and took my time looking for something really special; a car that would make me feel like it was The One."
Luckily, Renée had another car as a daily driver, so she wasn't feeling pressure to buy something right away. She test drove several different cars, but nothing really appealed to her until she got behind the wheel of an E46. Renée explained, "the way the car handled was amazing. It drove so smoothly around tight corners. I also love and appreciate the body style and body lines of the E46 M3. I love how beefy and aggressive it looks."
There were a few things Renée considered when searching for her E46 M3. She wanted a well maintained, low mileage M3 in a color that wasn't often spotted in the area that she lives in. With some time and patience, she found exactly what she wanted. "I had a PPI conducted and everything checked out well. My car was a tad shy of 66k miles when I found it, and it was Phoenix Yellow, which is one of my favorite factory colors for the E46 M3" Renée recalled. "This E46 M3 was everything I wanted, so I purchased the car in July of 2010."
The climbing prices and increasing rarity of such a low mileage car painted in a unique color are the only things holding the E46 M3 back on the track.
"Soon after I bought the E46, I experienced the adrenaline rush from being on the race track with a friend of mine, so I wanted to take my own car out. I’ll be honest, I was super timid at first, because it’s an M3 and this car is naturally expensive to fix if I were to crash it. Even to this day, I feel like I still hold back while I'm out on the racetrack, but that's something I know I'll get past with more seat time.
I’ve never been power hungry, so I feel like the power my M3 already has is just fine for my level of driving skill. After a few times out on the track though, I wanted some modifications that would improve the car's handling. I began going to the race track on a monthly basis, and every time I drive, I strive to improve my skills and hit a new personal best time."
Sometimes, unexpected things get in the way of even the best laid plans. Renée sustained a back injury that prevented her from tracking her M3 as often as she originally planned. "I had to focus on recovering from the injury first," she explained. "It seems like I am back to my original plan with the E46 for the time being, which is simply driving it to enjoy it."
Renée drives all over town every week to meet with work clients. She didn't want to rack up a ton of stop-and-go miles on the M3, so her beloved E46 is no longer a daily driver.
Instead, Renée looks forward to driving her car on weekends, explaining, "I love driving mountain roads like Angeles Crest whenever I want to go for a spirited drive... but I actually just signed up for a track day. I can't wait until quarantine is over so we can begin going back to tracks!"
Renée says that when it comes to her car, performance is the priority because the E46 M3's driving characteristics are what made her fall in love with the car in the first place. "I have always been more about function than form," she explains. "Of course I want my car to look good, but if the mods don’t really serve a functional purpose, I just won’t buy the part. For instance, there is some oxidation on the car if you look closely... but painting the car is not my priority at this moment."
Even though Renée isn't necessarily into things like extraneous body kits, fender flares, and subwoofers in the trunk, she still took the opportunity to upgrade some minor cosmetic items on the car. She swapped her OEM front bumper with a CSL Front Bumper, and had Quad-Xenon FX-R projectors added into the headlight housings with E46 shrouds for a huge upgrade in lighting visibility with a clean, almost OEM look.
When the tail lights needed replacement, Renée replaced the OEM units with LED tails, which added to the car's visibility from the rear, and gave it an updated, more modern look.
Inside the cockpit is all business. Renée decided to leave the interior alone, since she loves the look and feel of the E46 M3 as it comes from the factory.
The aluminum M3 pedal set provide a great looking contrast from the E46's black floor mats and carpeting.
Since this E46 M3 isn't being used for daily driving duties any more, Renée has a relatively low amount of miles on the clock, compared to the car's age.
The 19-year old black factory leather still feels soft and supple, thanks to regular application of leather conditioner and the fact that the car isn't parked in the hot California sun very much.
Under the hood lies the legendary 3246cc BMW S54 engine that won over the hearts of many BMW enthusiasts with its responsive nature and 8000rpm redline. With this one-of-a-kind engine comes unique problems and necessary maintenance, however.
"As many people know, purchasing an M3 can be inexpensive, and maintaining it can be really costly," Renée explained. "I plan to keep this car forever, so it’s important to me that the car is maintained properly. I have encountered some pretty major, but common issues with my E46. Two years after I bought the car, my VANOS system failed and had to be rebuilt. The very next year, I took precautions and had the subframe reinforced because I was tracking the car, and didn't want all sorts of stress cracks to develop, which is a common issue with E46 M3s. Just a couple years ago, my factory bell housing cracked and the flywheel pins came out, which resulted in me needing to swap out the transmission completely. It was super stressful trying to locate a used 6 speed transmission, but I got lucky! I found one in great condition and it even had low mileage! It was a real pain to deal with, but it all worked out. Since the factory flywheel needed replacement, I bought a LuK clutch & dual mass flywheel for it because of how versatile they were for both street and track use, With the new clutch and flywheel in, my M3 was engaging gears smoothly again."
Bolted to the strut towers are a set of Ground Control aluminum camber plates, which sit atop Eibach Pro-Street-S coilovers. Eibach adjustable sway bars were also installed for more high speed cornering confidence, and since this M3 is lowered, Eibach endlinks were installed to dial in the car's suspension geometry properly as well.
Peeking under the diffuser, one can just barely see the aluminum canister and 60mm piping from the Supersprint stainless steel exhaust, which gives the car a more aggressive tone, especially at higher rpm.
A carbon fiber CSL rear diffuser perfectly frames the Supersprint exhaust, and matches the subtle, yet aggressive look of the front bumper.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing that draws your eye to this Phoenix Yellow M3 are the lightweight forged Volk Racing ZE40 wheels in Matte Blue Gunmetal finish. Renée's ZE40s are sized in 18x9.5J +20 offset all around, wrapped in Bridgestone RE71R 265/35/18 tires.
Since Renée previously owned a highly modified Japanese car and is a regular at car meets and events, she chose high-end Japanese wheels for her E46 because they fit her personal style, and are top notch when it comes to style, strength, and lightness. Even BMW IMSA race teams use Volk Racing/Rays Wheels for competition because of their forged monoblock design.
Just behind the concave spokes of the ZE40s are a set of StopTech slotted brake rotors, paired up with Performance Friction brake pads up front and Porterfield pads in the rear. To increase braking performance and get rid of any possibility of spongy braking feel, StopTech stainless steel brake lines were also installed.
Everyone has a reason that they love their car. For some it's the speed and adrenaline rush. For others, it's a device to connect with other enthusiasts. For Renée, she says, "it is my safe haven; my therapy; my happy place. Getting behind the wheel and going for a drive relaxes me. I have very fond moments going for drives with my dog in my E46."
"I love having the ability to take it out on track and enjoy the car for what it’s built for. Learning the driving line at different race tracks and pushing myself to test my car's limits has been both exhilarating and challenging. I tend to be a perfectionist and super competitive with myself, so I try to enhance my skills to become a faster driver each time I go to the track. Attending track days has also presented opportunities to meet a lot of great people in the car industry that I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise. I’ve been able to meet so many people who I have made lasting friendships with."
When asked about her typical lap times, Renée admits, "my lap times are certainly not where I want them to be, but I'm still learning and improving every time I go out; it allows me to get more and more comfortable driving my car at the limit. My personal best time at Buttonwillow Raceway is 2:07.968, and I'm looking to keep shaving that number down."
"If I could do it all over again, I would immerse myself in tracking my car earlier. Not just with the M3; I'm talking in general. I think getting a later start in life presented some barriers for me, especially because I just graduated with my Masters degree, and had to focus on earning hours for licensure for work. I had to gear my focus toward my career first, rather than my passion for cars."
When asked how she developed a love for cars, Renée explained, "I have always been fond of cars from a young age, and growing up I wanted to prove to the boys that women are just as capable as men. Growing up, my mom always shared stories about her and my grandma driving fast and racing cars, and how liberating it can feel to be behind the wheel."
"In high school, cars really piqued my interest, especially since it has always been such a male dominated hobby and industry. I was eager to learn and be more hands on. I took auto class at Pasadena City College, but when I wasn't acing my exams, I felt a bit discouraged. I just wasn't grasping the information, but I quickly learned that it was because I didn't really have an interest in learning about diagnosing electrical systems or installing pistons and rods. I discovered that my passion was for driving cars rather than working on them."
Renée says that she definitely cherishes the connections and friendships she has made with those that share the same passion for cars. "I've met so many wonderful people at the track and made friends with those in the car industry who have been giving me constructive feedback and assisting me on the track. I don't have any major mods that have led me to run faster times at the track." Renée continues, "People that are really fast understand that fast lap times aren't about the mods on a car, but the experience level of the driver. I'm so thankful for friends who have taken time to sit in my car to coach me when driving, or have taken me out in their cars to show me the proper racing lines, braking points, and how to set my car up for the next turn. To me, developing those types of relationships are more valuable than anything, and are my favorite things about owning this M3."
If you enjoyed this E46 BMW M3, you can find additional BMW-related content at bmw.fcpeuro.com, everything E9X related at our BMW E9X Hub, as well as more build features like this one, here. If there's anything specific you would like to see, or if you have any questions/comments, leave them in the comments section below.
Antonio Alvendia is an aficionado of cameras, rare wheels, hip hop, and obscure aftermarket car accessories. He bought his first E39 Touring after seeing M5 Estates on photo trips to Europe, and now has sights set on restoring a classic Mercedes. Antonio was a principal photographer on the limited edition hardcover book on Singer Vehicle Design's Porsche 911 builds, entitled One More Than Ten. Future goals include returning to the Nurburgring to shoot the N24 race and driving the Nordschleife again. ••• Instagram : @MOTORMAVENS